The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is the world’s northernmost location with a permanent population. Situated approximately half way between the coast of northern Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard comprises numerous islands, islets and skerries lying well within the Arctic Circle between latitudes 74° and 81° North.
Despite the presence of Norway’s only coalmine, most of Svalbard remains an unspoilt Arctic wilderness, with approximately 2,100 glaciers, dozens of deep fjords and a high mountain plateau. Around 60 per cent of the archipelago’s total area of approximately 61,000 sq km is covered by glacial ice.
Nearly two thirds of Svalbard is protected, with seven national parks and 22 other protected areas, including 15 bird sanctuaries. The land and the surrounding waters of the Barents Sea are an important migratory destination for seabirds. Up to 30 species, half of which are listed as endangered, are found on the islands, most in late summer when around 20 million individuals visit to feed.
The most common species are little auk, black-legged kittiwake and northern fulmar. Two songbirds, the snow buntings and wheatear, are known to breed in Svalbard, but only one species of bird, the rock ptarmigan, stays during the fierce Arctic winters.
Unsurprisingly, the polar bear is the biggest attraction for wildlife photographers. This iconic species is the largest predator of the Arctic and one of four terrestrial mammals found on the islands, the others being Arctic fox, Svalbard reindeer and the tiny southern vole, which is only found on the island of Grumant. The sea ice and shore around the Svalbard archipelago is home to nearly a thousand polar bears which gather in large groups around the islands each summer when shrinking ice in the fjords reduces the amount of available habitat for these apex predators. As a result these normally solitary creatures – mostly females and cubs – create a more visible and interesting situation for the camera.
FINDING POLAR BEARS
However, this seasonal abundance of polar bears in some parts of Svalbard does not necessarily mean finding them is a straightforward exercise. A bear’s white coat blends in perfectly with the surrounding sea ice and the vastness of this habitat often reduces the size of these large predators to a speck in the distance. Binoculars are essential for spotting bears on the sea ice from a boat or Zodiac – the only means of transport around the rugged coastline. Sometimes, bears can be seen sleeping on the bare rocks of the shoreline, but the more aesthetically pleasing compositions depict the bears on an expanse of white – ice, snow, or glacier.
It may even be possible, although highly unlikely, to photograph a polar bear on blue glacial ice. For those photographers who make regular trips to Svalbard, seeing a polar bear on a stretch of blue ice is a dream shot, rarely realised. Blue ice is formed over tens of thousands of years, a result of air being pushed out of the glacial wall under enormous pressure, and reflecting the surrounding blue hues of water.
Summer is the most popular time to visit when there is no shortage of light. Depending on the latitude, the midnight sun at Svalbard lasts between 99 days (at 74°N) and 141 days (81°N) from April to August, while the polar night means the sun is not seen at all for up to 128 days between late October and mid February. Despite this absence of light and the colder temperatures, some photographers prefer to visit Svalbard in the winter. Although the sun remains below the horizon during these months, there is still a surprising amount of ambient lunar and stellar light reflected off the snow and ice.
There are a number of practical considerations for photography at this time of year: it is imperative to protect yourself and your equipment from the intense cold, especially when working for a prolonged period outdoors. For example, battery drain accelerates in sub-zero temperatures and some seasoned pros recommend sleeping with their batteries in a sleeping bag to keep them warm!
One of the main photographic attractions during the winter months in Svalbard is the spectacle of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, when the display is at its brilliant and colourful best. The clear Arctic air above and absence of light pollution makes it an ideal setting for photographing the Aurora.
Such a photograph requires a wide-angle lens and a sturdy tripod to ensure the camera and lens remain completely still during exposure. More vibrations can be avoided by switching off any image stabilisation systems. Autofocus is also unnecessary as the subject distance equates to infinity, so it should be switched off and the lens pre-focused manually to infinity, and this setting locked.
To reduce exposure time, select the maximum lens aperture and use a moderately fast ISO setting of 1600 or 3200 – today’s cameras have much improved resolution at higher ISO settings than in the past. By reducing the exposure time through a wide aperture setting and higher ISO rating, there is less chance of lines of star trails cutting across the colourful curtains of the aurora, or too much ambient light reducing the contrast and background darkness of the night sky. Lens filters should also be removed as these can affect the density and saturation of the colours as recorded by the camera.
RETURN OF THE WHALES
For centuries, relentless hunting extirpated many species from these waters and elsewhere in the Barents Sea. The enforcement of the whaling ban since the late 20th century has finally seen these massive marine mammals return in small but steadily increasing numbers. First to return were humpback whales and orcas, then the fin whale and in more recent times the biggest of all, the giant blue whale.
Scientists in Svalbard are using photography by taking pictures of the flukes (tails) of diving whales in order to identify individual species, as the shape and markings of each fluke is unique, like a fingerprint. Such images are also a favoured composition for wildlife photographers when looking out for these giants as they breach the surface. Working from a boat, there are many factors to take into account when photographing whales: weather and lighting conditions, state of the water and proximity to the whale. Although close encounters do happen, it is more likely that the camera to subject distance will warrant the use of telephoto zoom like a 100-400mm or 70-300mm.
With salt and spray aplenty, especially if the sea is choppy and the wind blowing, it is advisable not to change lenses and thereby risk water getting inside the camera. Before getting on board your boat, you should already have decided which lens to use and have it mounted on the camera. A zoom is definitely the best choice as it gives you a range of framing options. Although it is advisable not to use filters when photographing the northern lights, the opposite applies when working at sea to photograph whales or other marine mammals, including walrus, seals and polar bears. By adding a polariser, glare and stray reflections off the water’s surface will be lessened and image contrast reduced, thereby allowing more detail to be rendered on the image captured.
For those seeking a touch of the surreal, a visit to the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg is worth considering. This isolated company-owned town of mostly Russian and Ukrainian residents continues to extract around 350,000 tonnes of coal each year. The black smoke belching from the coal-burning power station, Cyrillic script on signs and buildings, Lenin statues, Soviet-era architecture and murals give an impression of an outpost from the Cold War era, but in this far-flung, snow-covered setting, it has unique photographic appeal.
Ultimately, Barentsburg is a curious diversion from Svalbard’s main attractions, which centre on the environment and natural wonders of this gateway to the Arctic. Polar bears and Arctic fox, seabirds and seals, fjords and glaciers, whales and the Northern Lights provide plenty of possibilities for spectacular photography.
However, as tourist numbers increase and the sea ice continues to shrink, potential problems lie ahead as more and more people risk coming into potentially deadly conflict with the wildlife as it retreats closer to land, human settlements and eager tourists.
Choose the right lens for your day’s photography depending on the subject and situation: wide-angle for landscapes and Northern Lights; telephoto for polar bears and other wildlife. In each case, use a zoom to give you a range of framing options.
Wear warm, well-insulated clothing and footwear. Down jackets are still the best for insulated warmth, while thermal hat and gloves will keep the extremities warm.
Use the camera on a tripod when photographing landscapes or making long exposures under the polar night of winter.
Change lenses if working from an open boat. In anything other than the calmest conditions salt and sea spray will almost certainly get into camera if you change lenses while at sea.
Use any lens filters if photographing the Northern Lights. Filters will affect the quality and saturation of colours if used.
Meter directly off the ice when photographing a glacier or other snow covered landscape. Ice is highly reflective, even if the light seems dull,
so take a spot meter reading off a neutral tone and lock this exposure, then recompose.
80° Nord: Svalbard, by Benoist Clouet, Stellar Editions, €48, hardback
Svalbard Exposed, by Roy Mangersnes and Ole Jorgen Liodden, Wild Photo Travel, $59, hardback
Arctic, by Vincent Munier, Kobalann, €65, hardback
Accessory option: Binoculars
A pair of high magnification binoculars is a must. The Steiner Wildlife XP 10x44s (£1,100) use fluoride glass to deliver high definition light transmission throughout the visible spectrum. Ergonomically designed eyecups ensure clear viewing and the lens coatings are dirt and water repellent to enable viewing in wet weather.
Lens option: Wide-angle zoom
Stunning polar vistas, sea ice and sweeping glaciers require a broad angle of view to frame in camera. The clarity of the air and light also means there will be a greater amount of image detail that only a higher quality lens can render. The Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 DG HSM II (£600) includes five low dispersion glass elements to improve image resolution and an angle of view from 84° to 122°.
Camera option: Weather-sealed DSLR
The Nikon D810 (£1,850 – body only) is one of the best weather-protected digital SLRs on the market, as well as possessing the highest image resolving sensor of any Nikon camera – 36.3 megapixels. This combination of weather proofing and high resolution makes it an ideal choice for locations such as Svalbard where the air is clear and almost free of pollutants.
This article was published in the December 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.